Russia says U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army not a terrorist group

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia does not consider the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army rebels a terrorist group, and they should be part of a political solution in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday after Russia was accused of bombing the group.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the media during the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Lavrov told a news conference at the United Nations that Russian air strikes that began on Wednesday targeted Islamic State militants and “other terrorist groups” in Syria. “We targeted ISIL-associated depots, armaments and sites,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Free Syrian Army and U.S. sources said the strikes actually hit facilities of the U.S.-backed group, some of whose rebels have received training and support from the CIA.

Lavrov said Russia’s targets were those considered terrorists by the United Nations and by the Russian legal system, including Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

“This is the same position that the Americans are taking. The representatives of the (U.S.-led) coalition command have always said their targets are ISIL, al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. This is basically our position as well,” he said.

Lavrov did not specifically deny that Russian planes had attacked Free Syrian Army facilities, but said: “We don’t consider Free Syrian Army a terrorist group.

“We believe that the Free Syrian Army should be part of the political process, like some other armed groups on the ground composed of the Syrians’ patriotic opposition individuals,” Lavrov said.


The dramatic escalation of the conflict in Syria prompted by Russia’s military action has dominated the U.N. General Assembly. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the crisis on the sidelines of the General Assembly on Monday and agreed to start talks to avert military clashes by parallel air campaigns.

Lavrov said the legal basis for air strikes in the past year by the U.S.-led coalition of Western allies and regional states against Islamic State targets in Syria was “really flawed.”

Russia says its actions were justified by an invitation from its longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad.

The Free Syrian Army was set up by Syrian army defectors after the uprising against Assad began in 2011.

The commander of an FSA-affiliated group said two Russian air strikes on Thursday hit a camp operated by the group, which had received military training from the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, told Reuters the camp in Idlib province was struck by around 20 missiles in two separate sorties.

It was at least the third Free Syrian Army group to report being targeted in Russian air strikes.

On Thursday, U.S. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said Russia’s initial air strikes in Syria targeted Free Syrian Army recruits.

FSA groups have been eclipsed in much of Syria by Islamic State and Nusra Front.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols, David Brunnstrom, Hugh Bronstein and David Storey; Editing by Howard Goller and Jonathan Oatis